There's a widespread notion that if only Israel would withdraw its forces and population from the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian violence against Israelis would stop and negotiations would start. After all, what more would they have to fight about?
In this spirit, the French government insists that the Israeli army "must withdraw." President Bush told Israel that "the occupation must end through withdrawal to secure and recognize boundaries consistent with United Nations Resolutions." And no less a personage than U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan reports that "the whole world is demanding that Israel withdraw."
It sounds good-but only if you ignore the historical record. We have seen this movie and it did not have a happy ending. The movie is titled "Lebanon 2000," and it bears retelling for the lessons it contains.
In 1978, Israel sent troops into Lebanon to prevent attacks on the Jewish state. Those troops remained there almost steadily for two decades, protecting the north mostly from attacks by the Islamic group Hezbollah. Over time, Hezbollah's tactics became increasingly deadly and sophisticated. Their assaults included two-pronged attacks whereby commandos fired on Israeli military targets at close range under the cover of heavy artillery fire from as far as four miles away. Or Hezbollah would launch a barrage of Katyusha rockets at Israel's civilian populations. It also specialized in roadside ambushes with sophisticated anti-personnel mines.
The attacks killed an average of 25 Israelis per year and wore away at morale. Things went from bad to worse in February 1997, when two transport helicopters ferrying troops in and out of southern Lebanon collided, killing all 73 soldiers aboard. Four Israeli mothers of fallen soldiers subsequently held a small demonstration against Israel's presence in Lebanon, spawning a movement that swept the country. The "Four Mothers" organization called for withdrawal from a war many Israelis equated with the U.S. experience in Vietnam. Public pressure continued to mount until May 2000, when Israel withdrew its troops and returned to a U.N.-recognized border with Lebanon.
Israelis had high hopes for the retreat, seeing in it a new template for Arab-Israeli harmony: Do as the outside world demands and then make it clear that any future trespasses will be dealt with severely. The government of Ehud Barak put Hezbollah (and its Syrian and Iranian backers) on notice that it would not tolerate further aggression. The world nodded in agreement. Most Israelis happily thought themselves safer than before the retreat.
To build on this base, Prime Minister Ehud Barak, in July 2000, convinced President Clinton to host a summit for Yasser Arafat and himself. At Camp David, he offered unprecedented concessions, hoping to close the Palestinian account like he thought he had just closed the Lebanese one. Trouble was, both Hezbollah and the Palestinians drew the opposite lesson from this retreat. Hezbollah crowed how Islamic forces in the "smallest Arab country" had caused Israel to retreat in "defeat and resignation."
As for Arafat, rather than be inspired by Israeli goodwill, he saw an Israel weak and demoralized. Inspired by Hezbollah's success, he and the Palestinian body politic lost interest in diplomacy and what it could bring-the partial attainment of their goals. Instead, they adopted the Hezbollah model of force in order to attain complete victory.
Not surprisingly, then, Arafat flatly turned down Mr. Barak's wildly generous proposals and did not even deign to make a counter-offer. Of course, complete victory here means the destruction of Israel, not coexistence with it. How could Arafat aspire for less, when he had turned down so handsome an offer at Camp David?
And so, on Sept. 29, 2000, the Palestinians initiated the violence that still persists.
One-and-a-half years into the war, the Palestinians believe their campaign is succeeding. It has killed two-thirds as many Israelis as the 1967 war and a recent Washington Post analysis explains that they see the violence as accomplishing the goal "to frighten and demoralize Israel, damage its economy and weaken it to the point that it is only a matter of time before it accedes to Palestinian demands." Palestinians talk about entering Israel's cities "as conquerors" and are confident that victory is imminent.
In brief, when Israel did the world's bidding and retreated from Lebanon, it disastrously reduced its own security. Yes, Mr. Annan approved, but what good was that in the face of a revitalized Palestinian campaign of violence? In a bad neighborhood like the Middle East, capitulation brings out the bullies.
The Lebanon story carries a powerful lesson for those who seek an Israel withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Historical experience strongly suggests that Palestinians would interpret such a development as a sign of Israel's caving under fire, further emboldening them to go after their ultimate prize-the destruction of Israel and its replacement with "Palestine."
Someday, when the Palestinians have given up on their determination to eliminate the Jewish state, Israel can and should pull back from the territories it won in 1967. But such a step should not even be contemplated, much less discussed in negotiations, before the Palestinians and Arabs have proven themselves willing to accept Israel's existence, and then actually live harmoniously with it for an extended period. This long-term project will require decades. However slow, it is the only way to resolve the conflict; there are no short cuts.
In the meantime, Israelis may well tire of keeping ultimate control over the West Bank and Gaza, but the just-deceased Oslo experiment in Palestinian autonomy (1994-2002) demonstrates that they have no choice.
As for the U.S., its policy vis-à-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict having fared so calamitously in recent years, perhaps the time has come seriously to consider a very different approach. Start with the basics: Our interest lies in ensuring Israeli security, maintaining good working relations with Arab states, and avoiding all-out Arab-Israeli warfare. Happily, these aims can be achieved by focusing on an over-arching policy aim-that of reducing Arab hostility to Israel. That, in turn, will be achieved by working with Israel and the Arab leaders to puncture the Arab sense of Israeli weakness.